How it evolved: A View …

… on the west Devon connection. In fact, I may by now have forgotten a lot that I once found out, but this is a summing up of what I remember.

Camden’s first edition of Britannia in 1586 mentions the possibility that ‘Chimligh’ might have been the location of Asser’s arx Cynuit where the Viking leader Hubba Danus met his death – a suggestion which Camden confesses he isn’t certain about. But where did the suggestion originate? – Camden was mainly based in London, and his visit to Devon was apparently in 1589, three years after the publication of the first edition.

He is known to have used John Leland’s earlier research which dates from about 1543 – but Leland seemed mainly concerned with the local topography, the rivers, the hills, bridges and churches, the local gentry and where they lived … He writes of the rivers Taw and Turidge, of Berstaple, Bedeford and Apledour/Appledre, of Taringtun, Litle Tarington.

Stevenstone, the ‘fair brik house’ of Mr Rollys, is north west of St Giles in the Wood; Risdon’s Winscott is south east

He refers to ‘a very fair brik house at S Giles half a mile by est out of Taringtun’: this was Stevenstone, abode of the Rolle family (as Leland states) since about 1524. The Risdon home was also as St Giles in the Wood, at nearby Winscott, on the opposite side of St Giles. But Leland has nothing here to say about Ubba, castrum Kinuith or Chimligh/Chulmleigh, about 12 miles away.

However, these Renaissance historians were known to ‘network’ closely with each other and some (for example, John Hooker, Sir William Pole – both Devon men) were at work on their separate surveys of Devon at the end of the 16th century. Camden and William Lambarde, the Kent antiquarian, were among the first members of the College of Antiquaries, founded in about 1586 and the immediate predecessor of the 18th-c. Society of Antiquaries.  Furthermore, as Professor Richardson has written (‘William Camden and the Rediscovery of England’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archæological and Historical Society, 78 (2004), p 119):

“Localism was one of the most deeply ingrained characteristics of the Tudor and Stuart age and the country gentry were its most ardent exponents and followers. For them local history – especially the history of counties – was not a digression, a pastime, a second-best kind of history, a poor relation of historical studies. It was the most relevant and important kind of history of all so far as they were concerned – the kind of history that coincided most closely with the miniature worlds which the gentry knew intimately, dominated, and to a large extent effectively controlled.” 

Frontispiece, Matthew Parker’s 1574 edition of Asser’s Life of King Alfred

The publication in 1574 of Bishop Parker’s edition of Asser’s Ælfredi regis res gestae – the sole contemporary source for the description of the Viking siege of ‘arx Cynuit’ – may well have sparked off the interest and speculation regarding the precise location of the event. Asser simply says that the invading Danes sailed ‘ad Domnaniam’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which would have been known to some through the manuscripts – though there was no printed edition until 1644 – specified ‘Defenascire’.

Parker’s Asser would have found a place in the library of many educated country gentlemen and they, repositories of local knowledge, communicated with the burgeoning antiquarian ‘movement’. One of these ‘local historians’ seems a likely source for the Chulmleigh connection.

This – 1586 – was too early for Tristram Risdon himself to have suggested a connection with Chulmleigh, but perhaps another member of the local gentry? There is always a hope that these unidentified places lie close to where we ourselves live and we are able to explore them.

The only apparent connection with Chulmleigh is that it was a Saxon centre. In Domesday it was Calmonleuga or Chalmonleuga. It seems agreed that this derives from the common Saxon name Ceolmund, though the version reported in Chumleigh village (Heritage) that: “In the year 815 AD Ceolmund , a 24 year old Saxon thegn, was charged by King Egbert of Wessex to go forth and settle in the land of the Dumnonii with a royal bride, as a reward for distinguished service in the field of battle’ is not given any source. Given that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that the area would have still been something of a battlefield, with the ‘West Welsh’, it seems an unlikely place for a young man to take his royal bride and set out to look for a place to settle down – unless he took a strong militia with him and was prepared to fight for it.

There is no reason to doubt that the personal name Ceolmund is at the root of the name, but the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England knows of no such Ceolmund associated with Devon at that date, so one is is left to wonder where the appealing story of young Ceolmund, the 24-year-old thegn, originated. But that need not detain us here … More to the point, what part of Chulmleigh resembles the topography of arx Cynuit as Asser so memorably described it? Would arx Cynuit really have been so far inland?

The medieval castle just outside Chulmleigh: perched on a hill but otherwise not at all like Asser’s description

Verdict on Chulmleigh: wishful thinking by a local person with antiquarian interests.

Without there being any manuscript survival, oral ‘suggestions’ regarding the history of the local area seem likely to have been the source of Camden’s 1586 edition. By 1607, he may well have been in contact with Tristram Risdon whose own speculative suggestion was that the elusive arx Cynuit was Hennaborough – Henny Castle. While this was only a conjecture, Risdon was more certain that Hubba the Dane landed at or near Appledore – ‘Apultreo in Saxon’. His reasoning is unclear.

Camden changed his mind about Chulmleigh between the 1600 edition and that of 1607 when he appears to have switched his attention from Chulmleigh to the confluence of the Taw and the Torridge. It is estimated that Risdon began to work on his Chorography in about 1605 …

As for Risdon’s text, he seems to have been influenced by William Lambarde’s Perambulation of Kent, where Apultreo is given as the ‘Saxon name’ for Kentish Appledore, the site of a slightly later Danish invasion. If mere conjecture was valid, he preferred to speculate on a site somewhat more likely (and very slightly closer to where he lived): not Chulmleigh but, perhaps, Hennaborough?

“And hereabout it was that [Hubba the Dane] laid siege to the castle of Kenwith [sic], which place some have sought for, as it were for ants’ paths, but found it not, unless they guess Hennaborough, a fort not far hence …”

Risdon’s reference to ‘Chimleigh’, however, retains the faintest reference to Asser: “Within the tything stands a castle, of stone [sic italics in the 1811 printed edition, p 302], for scite on all quarters (except the east) very defensible” – but no suggestion here that this is arx Cynuit.

[NB For comments on Risdon’s text, it should be pointed out that no reliable text, based on an original manuscript, has yet been published of what Risdon actually wrote. Until a manuscript source has been studied, no comment can be considered definitive]

Camden seemed to keep an open mind on this later idea too, not least because he knew of no precise location for the stronghold (Risdon had not at this point worked long on his Chorography, and he too was, seemingly, conjecturing). Nevertheless, the chase was pointing in the direction of the mouth of the river Taw and a place called ‘Hubbastow’ (that certainly came from a local source – perhaps Risdon – who adds that ‘the stones were long since swept away by the sea’s encroaching’). In 1702 William Baxter began work on his Glossarium (published in 1719). In a slightly obscure passage he appears to consider Barnstaple as the site of ‘Asserii nostri Arx Kinchüith’, subsequently(?) called Ubbonis Sedes or Ubbestow. This famous place, said Baxter, had long since been swallowed up by the sea and was no longer visible. It seems clear that both Risdon and Baxter were referring to Ubba’s burial mound having been swept away by the sea, not arx Cynuit itself.

That appeared to have been the state of knowledge and conjecture until Robert Studley Vidal wrote his influential paper in 1804 for the Society of Antiquaries’ publication Archæologia. In pressing the case for Kenwith Castle (Henni-borough or Henni Castle) he was opting for a site virtually on his own doorstep, since he himself lived in Cornborough House, no more than a mile away. He had therefore examined the site and ‘proved’ the case where Camden and Baxter had doubted (‘That [their] conclusions, however, were by far too peremptory, and probably drawn in a moment of negligence or haste, will, it is presumed, evidently appear from the circumstances I am about to adduce, in order to prove that not only the site of this castle, but also the enemy’s intrenchments, and the line by which the defeated Danes sought to regain their ships, may clearly be ascertained even at this day.’)

His own certainty convinced his readers and posterity – fellow antiquaries, romantic novelists, local historians, the tourist industry. From then on Ubba landed at Appledore, arx Cynuit was ‘Kenwith Castle’ – and Bloody Corner, just beyond Northam, was the very place where that battle took place in which the Danes were defeated and their raven standard captured.

Verdict on Hennaborough: This seems wishful thinking too, though could arx Cynuit be somewhere else in the area?

Well, the fleet led by Ubba (or whoever) in 878 consisted of 23 ships. The one that rowed up to Appledore in Kent in 892 had 250 ships and was followed by a further 80. These were invading forces, ‘Ubba’s’ was still a mere raiding party. It would follow that the Danes would have expected there to be something to raid and it’s not easy to see where there was sufficient Saxon wealth to tempt them in west Devon. On the north coast, especially in (present) west Somerset there were a number of documented raids; there were also at least three supposed royal estates – at Carhampton, Williton and Cannington – and therefore many ministri regis to maintain and defend them. One, at least – Carhampton – was raided twice in the 9th century. On the basis of likelihood – though no more evidence! – this seems a better guess.

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Nearing the conclusion. Possibly.

Or at least as far as I’m likely to go. My aim was not to disprove the legend that Hubba the Dane landed at Appledore in Devon in 878 (or 879), or that arx Cynuit, the fortification in front of which the Danish leader met his death according to Asser, was in the near vicinity.

I was curious to find out why anyone ever thought it was there, why the belief dates back hundreds of years and has persisted up to the present day. Scholarly opinion gives it little credence and the early sources which record the historical event don’t pinpoint the location.

Between the earliest records (i.e. the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and similiar annals deriving from it, Asser’s Life of King Alfred and, for instance, Gaimar’s Estorie des Engleis) and the time when the popular legend appeared there is a gap of several hundred years.

I’ve consulted the writings of ten different historians, antiquarians and scholars, starting with John Leland who undertook his West Country Itinerary in 1542/3, and ending with Robert Studley Vidal, who wrote his letter to Archæologia in 1804. Of these, William Camden seems to me to have played a pivotal role here. The first edition of his Britannia was published in 1586 and the last in 1607 and there are important changes between the two. But leaving him for the moment …

John Leland

John Leland

1. Before him was John Leland, whose Itinerary wasn’t published until the 18th century. He doesn’t appear to have heard anything of the legend – or at least he didn’t think it worth mentioning:

The ryver of Taw is no very mayne streame at the ebbe as it apperith at Berstaple. From Berstaple to the very haven mouth a v. miles: and the very mouth of it is no large thing, and a little without is a barre. There rennith a shore on the west side of the haven; a 3. miles byneth Berstaple to this nesse or point metith the ryver of Turege and Taw togither, making a brode water, and go to the Severn se [ed. Toulmin Smith].

And after Camden came Thomas Westcote who wrote A View of Devonshire in MDCXXX. Although this wasn’t published for over 200 years, in 1845, it does tell us what people knew or believed in 1630. There are several references to the fate of Hubba the Dane, and it’s worth looking at each of these extracts:

1. [p 89 Book I Ch XXIII]

Thought of some [stones] to be there erected and fixed in memory of the great victory at the overthrow and slaughter of Hubba, the Dane; who, with Hungar, his associate, having harried over all the country, from Eglisdon (now St. Edmondsbury,) to this country, was here utterly vanquished, and with his whole army slain, anno 879, and the banner (wherein was curiously wrought, by the fingers of the daughters of King Loth-brook, (in English, Leather-breech,) a raven, which they called Rephan, whereon they reposed no small confidence for good success, having been so oftentimes fortunately and with so happy success displayed,) taken, and the place since that time called Hubbleston. But for that place we may perchance find it hereafter near the mouth of Torridge.

This could either mean that possibly the site is ‘near the mouth of Torridge’ (but it could be elsewhere); or, more literally, that he understands it to be there and he may perhaps be able to find it.

2. [p 275 Book IV Ch VIII]

Now I thought I might have left Chulmleigh, but I am staid at Stone-Castle. Asserius speaking of the overthrow of Hubba the Dane, who had so horribly vexed our country, says it was at Kenwith-Castle, and the place after was called Hubble-Stow, or Hubbes-Stone. We shall seek this place at Henna, or Hennaborow, in Northam, and at Instow; and what we shall find there we will impart to you. Some would have Hubble-Stone to be this castle, (now by the ruins a heap of stones,) for site, strong on every side but east; so was this: and as it hath lost its strength and beauty, so it hath lost (if it be the same,) the two first syllables of its name.

It’s not known what version of Asser’s work Westcote had seen, but there is no mention of anything like Hubble-Stow or Hubbes-Stone in the surviving text, nor did Asser name Hubba. I looked at Matthew Parker’s ‘editorialised’ version of 1574 and there was no additional information in that passage either.

Asser, of course, wrote of arx Cynuit, not ‘Kenwith-Castle’.  Interestingly, in 1630 Westcote is referring to the actual site as Henna or Hennaborow, which accords with Vidal’s information that local people knew it as Henni Castle or Henni-borough (and not Kenwith which they said was a recent name).

3. [p310-11 Book IV Ch XIX]

Here [Instow] I should seek for Kenwith Castle, where Hubba, the Dane, was overthrown, and the place after called Hubblestow: now whether it should be here or not is questionable. The congruity of the names may somewhat persuade and import much, as Instowe abbreviated from Danestow, and that again from Hub-dan-stow; and over against it, on the farther side of Torridge, the inhabitants of Northam have a place which they call Hubblestow, or Hubblestone. Let everyone applaud his own opinion: you know mine; and what I find elsewhere I will impart unto you.

Instow is opposite Appledore, on the other side of the Torridge, so is a quite distinct site. Westcote’s etymologising is worthy of William Baxter: since the name in Domesday is Iohannestou and the medieval (14th c.) church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, that would seem to be at the origin of the name.

Church of St John the Baptist, Instow

Church of St John the Baptist, Instow

4. [p342 Book IV Ch XXVIII]

Here [Northam] may we see some remains of the Castle Hennaburgh as it is said, as also that hereby was Kenith-Castle, so famous for that Hubba the Dane was vanquished at the siege thereof and slain, and his ominous banner Refan taken: in remembrance whereof a great heap of stones was there piled up together as a trophy of the victory gotten by the natives, and the place yet remembered by the name Whibbestow ; not much exchanged from Asserius his word Hubbastow. Though the heap of stones be long time since swept away by the continual encroaching of the sea. But to tell you truly, I find as many places in this county claim the honour of this victory, as cities in Greece for the birth of Homer.

Again Westcote refers to Asser’s mention of ‘Hubbastow’. If indeed he did find it in the copy which he saw of Asser’s Life of Alfred, it seems likely that it was a later addition. Hubbastow is a Saxon form (Hubba + stow) – Hubba’s Place, and therefore distinct from Gaimar’s Ubbelawe (Ubbe + hlāw) – Hubba’s burial mound.

The burial itself may also have been a late introduction (by Gaimar?) into the narrative, since Asser’s version was that few Danes survived and escaped to their ships. This seemed to leave little opportunity for them to find their dead leader among the hundreds of corpses and bury him beneath a monument of stones.

5. [p 350 Book V Ch I]

Westcote says he was given the poem, of which this is part, by Tristram Risdon, who completed his own Chorographical description or survey of the county of Devon in about 1632, roughly two years later, though he certainly started it several years before. Although this wasn’t published until 1811, the manuscript circulated among his antiquarian friends, of whom Westcote was one; so they knew each other’s work. Here the poet (Risdon himself, I presume) is describing the river Torridge:

At Bideford with bridge his stream is crown’d,
For number and fair arches much renown’d.
His tilting tides near unto Appledore
Have clean swept Hubba’s trophy off the shore
That there was set : posterity might know
At Kenwith Castle his great overthrow.
So forcible are those his swelling waves
They wash the dead again out of their graves.
Forward she forceth on the sandy burrows
On what we term the Bar, in foaming furrows.

So before we get back to Camden, the outline of the legend is in place: Appledore, Kenwith Castle, Hubba, Hubbastone, the Raven banner. We still lack ealdorman Odda – or earl Oddune – and the origin of Northam’s Bloody Corner. This is also a detail which doesn’t fit the facts. If Henni Castle is arx Cynuit then Bloody Corner can hardly be the site of the battle: Asser’s narrative describes how the Saxons burst out of the stronghold early in the morning and fell upon the besieging Danes, taking them by surprise. The Saxons would have had to pursue the fleeing enemy for a good two miles before slaying them at Bloody Corner, Northam. That is not what the surprise attack implies.

An assemblage of facts could provide an explanation of the origin of the legend, possibly. But that’s for next time.

Robert Studley Vidal (1770-1841)

Vidal was a lawyer and antiquary, the son of an Exeter solicitor. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine says that he died in Cornborough (‘Hornburgh’ in the 14th century), where he ‘kept a pack of harriers’. His home was at Cornborough House, some two miles west of Bideford, and less than a mile further on beyond Kenwith Castle.

On 25 January 1804, Vidal wrote a letter to his friend and fellow antiquary, Henry Wansey, containing ‘what particulars I have been able to collect respecting the site of Kenwith or Kenwic Castle’. This was published in 1806 in Archæologia (vol. XIX), the journal of the Society of Antiquaries, as: ‘An Inquiry respecting the Site of Kenwith . or Kenwic Castle in Devonshire. By Robert Studley Vidal, Esq, In a Letter to Henry Wansey,. Esq. F.A.S.’.

The interest of the site, Vidal explained, was that ‘by the fortunate sally of an intrepid band of Anglo-Saxons from Kenwith Castle, to which the Danes had lain siege towards the close of the ninth century, the main western army of these ferocious invaders was routed, 1200 of them, including their principal leader, killed, their consecrated standard taken, and the gloomy aspect of affairs so entirely changed, that our immortal Alfred was enabled to leave his hiding place, and again to assume the command of his armies and the government of his people‘.

Vidal was a man who read Latin, knew his Asser (with reservations!) and provided an accurate account  of what Asser had written about the castle of Cynuit; he marvelled that such antiquaries as the Williams – Camden (1551-1623) and Baxter (1650-1723) – should have decided that no trace of the fortress now remained (and of Camden and Baxter, more later). For Vidal, their conclusions were ‘by far too peremptory’.

the-willums

Judging by the name Cynwit or Kenwic, ‘I was led to conceive, that this fortress might have been situated towards the higher end of some branch or marshy reach of a river‘ (although he admitted that that was probably not the meaning of the name: ‘but whether the name was given in allusion to its situation (and which I must confess there is very great reason to doubt)…’. Vidal was struck by the similarity between Asser’s description of arx Cynuit and a certain local hill, which he had inspected in some detail. From the local old people he established that in living memory it had never been called anything but Henni-borough or Henny Castle. And without wanting to insist on the point, or give it too much weight, Vidal surmised that Kenwith or Kenwic might well have been shortened to Kenni or Henni …

But, enquire as he would, he could find no local tradition that supported his theory:  “… though I made generally known my wish to learn any popular history that might be attached to this old place, and listened with every possible degree of patience to many foolish and inconsistent tales, yet I never could in this way obtain a single particular worth attending to, or that I could find had the least bearing towards what I considered as the genuine history. I say this in regard to the stories of the common people ; but few of the better informed inhabitants of the neighbourhood appeared to have given the subject the least attention.”

The results of Vidal’s physical inspection of the site, and his reasons for finding that they supported his theory, are not really relevant here. The relevant points are:

1. that Vidal’s knowledge was based on such primary sources as we already know (though there is reason to think he knew Asser through Matthew Parker’s ‘editorialised’ edition), none of which identify any location as the site of arx Cynuit.

2. that in spite of making enquiries, he could find no evidence of a local tradition surviving at that time, 1804 (yet something had seemingly been known to Camden and Baxter).

traveller

Title page (and extract from page 25) of Gray’s Traveller’s Companion

3. For local people in 1804 it was ‘Henny Castle’, as it was for the Late Mr Gray (Author of The ELEGY Written in a Country Church-Yard, &c.)  in his Traveller’s Companion (1773), listing Antiquities, Houses, Parks in Devonshire) .

4. As he concedes, none of the early sources which he cited named Ubba as the leader of the Danes, though he surmised it from what he thought Asser had said. In fact, it looks as if this could have been an ‘editorial interpolation’ by Matthew Parker in his edition of Asser (first printed in 1574), rather than the original text. This might be where ‘Ubba’ made his first appearance in this connection, but without checking Parker’s edition I’m not sure. The paragraph wasn’t in Asser’s original.

5. his own researches were published (and reviewed in the Gentleman’s Magazine) so would have circulated in such circles as might have influenced Thomas Wright and Charles Kingsley. In other words, the story had circulated widely and could have been a key source for later re-tellings of the tradition.

There appears, from this much, to have been something of a leap from reading Asser to, metaphorically, looking from his window in Devon at Kenwith Castle and thinking, ‘Could that be it …?’ Yet, that seems to be what happened, according to his description. But he was acquainted with the writings of Camden and Baxter. What were their sources and what did they say at an earlier date?